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updated: 1/14/2013 8:35 AM

Thousands of protesters rally in Pakistani capital

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  • Pakistani Sunni Muslim cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, 61, center, leaves Lahore to lead an anti-government march to the capital Islamabad, Pakistan, Sunday. After years in Canada, Qadri returned to Pakistan last month and gave a speech demanding that sweeping election reforms be implemented before elections this spring.

    Pakistani Sunni Muslim cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, 61, center, leaves Lahore to lead an anti-government march to the capital Islamabad, Pakistan, Sunday. After years in Canada, Qadri returned to Pakistan last month and gave a speech demanding that sweeping election reforms be implemented before elections this spring.
    Associated Press

Associated Press

ISLAMABAD -- Thousands of supporters of a fiery Pakistani cleric who has been calling for election reforms descended Monday onto the capital, as security officials girded for mass rallies by a movement that has virtually overnight become a powerful but still mysterious force on the political scene.

The dramatic entry into Pakistani politics of Tahir-ul-Qadri, a preacher who until recently lived abroad in Canada and had only a modest local following, has galvanized supporters looking for reforms but worried detractors who fear he'll derail upcoming elections.

Also Monday, thousands of Shiites finally ended a three-day long protest in the southwestern city of Quetta in which they demanded better security following an attack that killed 86 people. They had blocked a main road with dozens of the victims' coffins, and finally agreed to bury their relatives after Pakistan's leaders dismissed the government of surrounding Baluchistan province.

The national government is also worried about security in Islamabad in advance of Qadri's protest. Thousands of police have been deployed in the city, and officers in riot gear are manning the main roads and streets. Authorities used shipping containers to block off the part of Islamabad where most government offices and embassies are located.

About 15,000 of Qadri's supporters left Sunday in hundreds of vehicles from the eastern city of Lahore, where the headquarters of his Minhaj-ul-Quran organization are located. They are expected to arrive in Islamabad later Monday, as more supporters join the rally along the way.

Television footage showed the marchers crowded into buses and vehicles with Pakistani flags flying as they made their way toward the capital.

Even before Qadri arrived in the capital, thousands rallied on the main avenue running through Islamabad that leads to the government headquarters. Members of the march set up a makeshift stage on top of one of the shipping containers that were supposed to block their way.

Male protesters gathered on one side of the avenue while women and children were on the other, divided by a grass median. Many of the protesters waved Pakistani flags or photos of Qadri, while songs on religious themes or in praise of Qadri blared through a loudspeaker.

The crowd appeared to be a mix of longtime Qadri followers and new supporters who had been inspired by his anti-government message.

"He feels pain for the people while the government feels no pain for the people," said Faizan Baig from the northern city of Abbottabad. The 23-year-old said he had come to Islamabad the night before and slept in a shrine on the outskirts of the city.

Qadri's rhetoric has invigorated many Pakistanis like Baig who are angry at the current administration whose five years in office ends this spring. They say the current government has succeeded in bringing little but electricity blackouts, unemployment, terror attacks and corruption.

Qadri returned to Pakistan in December after living for years in Canada, where he's also a citizen. He heads a religious network in Lahore and gained some international prominence by writing a 2010 fatwa, or religious opinion, condemning terrorism.

But he was never a national political figure until this winter, when his calls for reforms ahead of elections galvanized many Pakistanis disenchanted by the existing parties. The cleric's vaguely worded demands include vetting of political candidates to make sure they're honest and taking steps to even out the political playing field so more people can participate in the political process.

But some of Qadri's comments have worried observers who fear the cleric is a front for the military to disrupt the democratic process just as it prepares for a historic transfer of power from one civilian government to another.

He has called for a role in the military in picking of the caretaker government. Under Pakistan's constitution, once the current government names an election date, a caretaker government takes over as a way to ensure impartiality in the election process, usually for a period of 60 to 90 days.

Qadri has said he does not want to delay the elections but also says if the caretaker government needs more than 90 days to ensure reforms, then that's not against the constitution.

Those comments, as well as questions about where his funding is coming from, have sparked fears Qadri is really trying to derail the upcoming vote on behalf of the Pakistani military, which is believed to dislike both the main political parties vying for power, and pave the way for a military-backed caretaker to hold power indefinitely. Qadri has denied any such involvement.

The protest that ended Monday in Quetta was launched in the wake of a twin bombing at a billiards hall Thursday that targeted members of the minority Shiite sect. The demonstrators demanded the provincial government be dismissed and the army take over responsibility for the city.

Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf said in a televised address shortly after midnight Sunday that the governor, who is appointed by the central government, would take over in Baluchistan, replacing the chief minister elected by the provincial assembly. Also, paramilitary forces will receive police powers and launch an operation against militants behind the billiards hall attack.

Abdul Qayum Changezi, one of the organizers of the protest, said they were ending the demonstration because most of their demands were met. The bodies were being shifted to a graveyard for burial, he said.

Last year was the deadliest ever for Shiites in Pakistan, with over 400 dead in targeted killings by radical Sunni Muslims who consider them heretics. Violence has been especially intense in Baluchistan, home of the largest number of Shiites in the country.

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